“The Space of Three Years”

Social/Textual: Mormon lists the simple statement that Mosiah and his people tilled the earth, and that thereby Mosiah did not become a burden to his people. Once again we find Mormon creating a synopsis of the material in his sources. We can learn much of Mormon and his editorial process from this verse.

First, we actually have the verse. That Mormon writes this information indicates that it was present in his source. The real question is why we have this information. Where Mormon simply notes in a passing summary that a new king was anointed, he is clearly abbreviating significant information. While we may debate whether or not Mormon fully understood the reason for including this information, we can use what he know of Benjamin’s discourse to understand why it was included in the original record and make some guess as to its original importance. I would suggest that the reason that Mormon makes sure that he tells us this is that while he is abridging the material on the plates, he found a rather important section relating to this topic. Just as the anointing of a king must have been more important to the original writers than to Mormon, so this too was more important to the original writers than to Mormon. Just as he notes but diminishes the space allocated to the anointing, so too here he notes but diminishes the space allocated to this event.

To reconstruct what Mormon was seeing is certainly presumptuous, but may be approached cautiously. The salient pieces of information come from what we have of Benjamin’s address:

  1. Benjamin declares that he has worked with his own hands.
  2. Benjamin declares that he has worked to make sure that his people had no burden grievous to bear.
  3. Benjamin is very concerned with social stratification through wealth.
  4. Apart from the spiritual impact of the covenant, the social covenant was one of eliminating the internal contentions resulting from the economic/social stratification.

Against this background we have a reconstructed mindset for Benjamin’s people, a social context that was much more important to them that to Mormon (whose primary interest is the spiritual covenant). In the historical context, however, the economic/social disparity would have been a continuing concern. Since the covenant had a social dimension, we can reasonably expect that the historical recorders would be interested in the social result of this covenant.

We have only two pieces of what that result would have been. The first is that the people till the soil. and the second is the Mosiah does also. These two elements must mean more than they appear to, especially to those who wrote the historical record. Imagine this scenario, we have Mormon reading a text, and then extracting these two pieces of information as a conclusion. So far so good. Now however, imagine the original writers. Why would the original writer spend effort noting that the people tilled the soil?

For the historical writer, saying that people tilled the soil is the equivalent of a modern writer summarizing General Conference and noting that afterward it ended the people shopped at grocery stores. This is obvious information. It is usually unremarkable information. In the Book of Mormon we rarely read of the tilling of the soil or of the harvests, or of the weather conditions that affected the harvests. We hear that the early Nephites are tillers of the soil, but only to distinguish them as civilized as opposed to the “savage” Lamanites (see Enos 1:20:21). Why would these statements be on the original source in the first place and particularly to have been sufficiently emphasized that they impressed Mormon enough to include them?

The original writers were probably giving the result of the social covenant. It is unlikely that every single person exclusively tilled the soil and gave up the trading that would have created the economic divisions in the first place. Nevertheless, the tilling of the soil is symbolic of the leveling of the society. Thus the original intent was probably to show that in addition to Mormon’s “peace” that might have been construed as an external peace, there was a social reorganization that followed Benjamin’ new covenant. Both the people and their leader till the ground" as an indication that they have no stratification between them. If there is not social distance between the king and the tillers of the ground, then there is no distinction throughout the society. The peace in the land is not from the Lamanites, but is as the result of the acceptance and implementation of both the spiritual and social covenant.

Textual: This closes a chapter in both our current edition and in the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon. The break between this chapter and the next follows a different organizational principle than the chapter breaks Mormon created in the story of Benjamin’s address. In this case, he is clearly separating stories, with this chapter the conclusion of Benjamin’s new covenant and the next chapter beginning the story of the excursion to find those of their number who years earlier had departed to return to the Land of Nephi.

Because this break occurs between two major stories, we may presume that this is a textual break that relates to Mormon’s selection of material and does not reflect precisely the source material Mormon is using. That source material appears to have a more chronological ordering marked by the passage of years. This passing of years allows Mormon to summarize them (3 years pass, for instance). The recording of historical texts within year markers is also a known feature of at least later Mesoamerican documents.

Many of the extant codices use year markers to separate scenes and actions. Perhaps the most interesting text in European script is the Annals of Cuauhtitlan a document originally in nahuatl. That document structures the entire narrative around the passage of time. Typically, a year is given, and then events relevant to that year are discussed. In several cases, multiple years are noted with no attached information (Anales de Cuauhtitlan. Tr. Primo Feliciano Velazquez. Instituto de Investigaciones Historicas, UNAM 1975, p. 5). It would appear that the author of the Annals of Cuauhtitlan is copying the gross structure from a pre-Columbian document, and that the structuring by years was a native conception.

This structuring by years is not quite as clear in the Book of Mormon as it is in the Annals of Cuauhtitlan, but the similarities are suggestive nevertheless. This will be particularly true as we get into the reign of the judges where this marking of text by years will become more prominent in the Book of Mormon itself. In any case, there does appear to be some organizational structure in Mormon’s source material that does not always make it through his abridgement.

Brant Gardner -

Brant Gardner

Multidimensional Commentary on the Book of Mormon

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